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Original Article

Positions of responsibility: A comparison

of ASEAN and EU approaches towards

Alistair D. B. Cook
RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore 639798, Singapore.

Abstract Recent challenges have tested the approaches of both the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) to adequately
respond to forced migration in Myanmar. This article provides a comparison
between the European sanctions regime and ASEANs constructive engagement
with Myanmar. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, it is ASEAN, along with the
United Nations (UN), that has offered an effective mechanism to access
populations of concern in Myanmar. This article draws on the experience of the
UN High Commission for Refugees on the western border and argues that while
the new ASEAN-UN-led mechanism offers a new way to assist people in the delta
region, this access is contingent on three constraints: maintenance of personal
relations with military decision-makers, continuation of an ASEAN-UN-led
mechanism and ongoing funding from donor nations.
International Politics (2010) 47, 433449. doi:10.1057/ip.2010.7;
published online 16 April 2010

Keywords: Burma; Myanmar; human rights; EU-ASEAN; UNHCR; Tripartite

Core Group


The relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

(ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) is increasingly interconnected, yet
the disrespect for human rights and the failure of Myanmar to democratize
pose significant challenges for them both. This article compares and contrasts
the approaches to Myanmar from both the ASEAN and the EU perspectives.
Both organizations have each favored a common institutional stance towards
Myanmar but have differed on what this position should be. On the one hand,
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the ASEAN approach to Myanmar has been one of self-styled constructive

engagement, choosing to actively engage with the military junta and offer
support to the regime to advance democracy and human rights (www.aseansec
.org/21057.htm). This contrasts with the EU approach to Myanmar, which has
focused on targeted sanctions (ECP, 2007). Both policies are aimed at
encouraging the regime to democratise and respect universal human rights.
These policies aim to achieve this in two significantly different ways. This
article evaluates the origins of these approaches and uses this analysis to
further understand the current challenges to the ASEAN and EU approaches
and their interactions more generally.

Initial Observations

There have been calls by western nations, such as the United States, for
Myanmars ASEAN membership to be suspended.1 The motivation for
suspension is to place greater pressure on the regime for reform. However,
there are several drawbacks to this route. First, suspension would undermine
ASEANs ability to be the comprehensive association for Southeast Asia,
which is essential for maintaining its reputation and credibility. However, if
suspension was enacted, it could encourage greater isolationism or rebalancing
of Myanmar towards its other, friendlier neighbors, China and India. Indeed,
regional leaders suggest that ASEAN has run out of steam and does not know
what to do with Myanmar as their efforts to promote reform are undermined
by Myanmars other neighbors, China and India (Kent, 2006).
Although the threat of suspension is unlikely to be carried out given the
diversity of opinion within the group, individual ASEAN members are
increasingly more critical of Myanmar. These members see the costs of the
military juntas inaction towards democratization and the negative impact it
has upon ASEANs international image. However, this change in opinion has
not been universal among ASEAN members. As a result, there has not been a
significant shift in ASEAN policy towards Myanmar. Indeed, the continuation
of the constructive engagement policy by ASEAN underlines the limited
political space for human rights discourse in the organization. It is a policy of
inaction whereby no formal significant policies have emerged to directly
influence the military in Myanmar through ASEAN. The ASEAN Chairman
said at the 2007 meeting that the organization is ready to support change when
it is requested from the military regime (
Although the organization promotes informal accommodation of the regime,
there is little evidence of any significant affect it has had on the Myanmar
regime. The greatest policy developments on the issues of democracy and
human rights in Myanmar with the Southeast Asian region have been at the
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bilateral level, with the more democratic states of the region holding the more
critical stances towards the military regime in Myanmar.
The EU shares the challenges of maintaining a common policy position with
ASEAN but differs in policy substance, which reflects the varying influences
on policy-making in both organizations. The EU Common Position (ECP)
adopted by its member states reflects the influence of European civil society on
the policy-making process and the tradition of human rights promotion in
Europe. The ECP was strengthened in response to the brutal oppression of the
2007 protests in Myanmar and targets senior government officials, their
business interests and those who directly benefit from the militarys policies
(ECP, 2007). The ECP allowed limited humanitarian and developmental
assistance and this is to be provided through local civilian authorities, United
Nations (UN) agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in an
effort to build local capacity (EU, 2008).
Two significant observations can be made of these two approaches to the
military regime. The first observation is that ASEAN is based on traditional
notions of sovereignty (Narine, 2005) and continues the status quo of constructive
engagement through the promotion of informal dialogue at the fringes of
ASEAN meetings. This highlights the divergent opinions of the ASEAN
members2 towards the military regime in Myanmar because while some members
criticize the regime, there has not been a significant change in ASEAN policy.
The second observation is that the organization has not yet successfully
developed a space for human rights discourse and there remains limited space
for such discussions at the regional level. As this article will argue, the promise of
significant regional institutional development and the establishment of an
effective human rights mechanism will be incremental at best.
In the section on the ECP towards Myanmar, the article argues that there are
significant limitations to targeted sanctions (Burma Campaign UK, 2006). This
is coupled with the fact that neighboring states engage with the military regime.
The ECP towards Myanmar has yet to provide significant results, as has the
constructive engagement strategy pursued by ASEAN. There has been a
significant gap between ethos and action in the ECP towards Myanmar and
this is reflected in the minimal progress made for a political solution in
Myanmar. As the humanitarian response to Cyclone Nargis demonstrates, the
regime was reluctant to allow humanitarian aid into the country without
significant constraints being placed upon it. This development reflected the
frozen relations between Myanmar, the EU and the West more generally but
highlighted how constructive engagement offered a means to persuade the
military regime to allow international humanitarian aid into Myanmar.
Although ASEAN and the EU approach democracy and human rights issues
in Myanmar in two very different ways, the two organizations are faced with
policy limitations and have not, as yet, availed of the opportunity, in the
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aftermath of the relief effort to evaluate their strategies towards Myanmar in

a more coordinated manner. Whether the EU and ASEAN can cooperate
in order to ensure that the two strategies towards Myanmar are effective
in the goals that they aim to achieve remains to be seen. It is increasingly
evident that the position adopted towards Myanmar by its non-ASEAN
neighbors must come under closer scrutiny. The EU is well placed to scrutinize
and utilize its soft power3 to encourage India, as a democracy and emerging
economic power to take a more proactive stance in the domestic situation
in Myanmar, for example. However, China does not use soft power in
this way because it is a prominent global economic power with its own poor
human rights record. Nevertheless, China is well placed to offer economic
advice, which in turn could see Myanmar more integrated into both ASEAN
and world markets, making it more susceptible to regional and international

Democracy and Human Rights Issues in Myanmar

Myanmar gained its independence from the United Kingdom in the shadow of
the Second World War in January 1948 and was known as Burma until the
military junta changed its name to Myanmar in 1989. The territory had been
under British rule and demarcated between Burma proper and the frontier
lands, which were initially used as buffer zones to British India.4 To maintain
British influence and authority in newly independent Burma, the well-known
and infamous divide-and-rule strategy was implemented. The frontier lands
retained a large degree of autonomy under the British, whereas Burma came
under direct colonial administration. Post-independence, the frontier lands
have been riddled with black market activity, fuelling ethnic nationality
insurgency (Than, 1998, p. 392) and this continues today, as a result of the
ongoing conflict between the ethnic nationalities and the military junta. The
evolution of the ethnic insurgency within an independent Burma has ensured
that there remain significant internal security challenges to the central
authority of the state. Although the conflict has evolved with diverse
characteristics alongside the different ethnic nationalities, the conflict remains
politically unresolved.
The post-independence constitution of Burma provided for some of the
ethnic nationalities areas to hold their own independence referenda after
10 years. The vision of the democratically elected U Nu government (19481962)
had been that of an independent Burma that could remain intact by celebrating
its multiculturalism, and promoting democratic principles throughout the
country (Jonassohn and Bjornson, 1999, p. 259). The 1962 military coup was
led by General Ne Win, who justified it with the argument that the integrity of the
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state was under threat and that military intervention was needed to maintain the
union. The military coup brought repression of the people and
the imprisonment of the democratically elected parliamentarians. The military
rejected the ethos of the governments unity in diversity approach in favor
of Burmanization, which essentially saw the cessation of attempts at
accommodation of the ethnic nationalities in the new regime. This became
abundantly clear in the redrafted 1978 constitution, where the military central
government severed ties with the leaders of ethnic nationalities.
The military regime attempts to control the ethnic nationalities areas,
through its four cuts strategy. This strategy is designed to cut off the
insurgents from communication, food, financial resources and recruits. It was
under this guise that all formal communication with the ethnic nationalities
was outlawed (Mason, 2000, p. 5). The four cuts strategy, initiated in the
1960s, remains a central tenet of the militarys tactics towards the ethnic
nationalities. The military government of Ne Win was officially known as the
Burma Socialist Party Programme but later became known as the National
Unity Party until Ne Win retired from frontline politics in 1988. The newly
named State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took control in
1988 in response to the growing unrest and opposition to one-party rule that
had governed Burma since 1962. As a result, SLORC permitted political
parties, changed Burmas official name to Myanmar in 1989, and allowed a
general election to be held for the national assembly in 1990.5 This saw the
emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as the leader of the democratic opposition,
known as the National League for Democracy (NLD). Although the NLD
convincingly won the 1990 general election, the military refused to recognize
the result. After the election, the military arrested and imprisoned many
opposition politicians including Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house-
arrest on-and-off for 14 of the past 20 years.
In 1997, SLORC renamed itself the State Peace and Democracy Council
(SPDC) but the same politico-military leaders essentially held key positions in
the government. The promise of constitutional reform remains slow and
unsupported by the NLD in the form promoted by the military. Internationally
the regime went through a period of self-imposed isolation under the leadership
of Ne Win. This self-imposed isolation saw the implementation of a non-
interference policy with its neighbors. This changed with the 1997 admission of
Myanmar into ASEAN. Myanmar was motivated predominantly by economic
interests such as seeking markets and a desire to counter-balance the growing
influence of China (Haacke, 2006). However, the more recent international
interactions with its neighbors have not led to any significant progress on
the political dimensions of Myanmese internal affairs. Indeed, Myanmars
ASEAN membership reaffirmed traditional sovereignty norms. By signing the
ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), Myanmar ensured that
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criticism was muted through the Treatys provision of non-interference in the

domestic realms of other member states.
The current political situation in Myanmar continues to form a significant
part of the interactions between ASEAN and the EU. There is significant
internal and external forced migration in and around Myanmar, which pose a
threat to regional security and state integrity. In 2005, there was an estimated
11 000 Burmese Rohingya6 registered with United Nations High Commission
for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia (Lewa, 2008); 60 00080 000 Burmese
Chins on the Indo-Burmese border and 23 000 Burmese Chins in Malaysia
(Alexander, 2008); approximately 27 000 Rohingya refugees still remaining in
Bangladeshi refugee camps (Phiri, 2008); and around two million Burmese
refugees trying to make a living in Thailand (Brees, 2008). According to the
main Thai-Burmese border relief agency, the Thai-Burma Border Consortium
(TBBC), the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is an estimated
540 000 people (TBBC, 2005). Although these estimates, as well as refugees
stories,7 and some in-country investigation8 have helped human rights agencies
and relief agencies learn more about internal displacement in Myanmar,
reliable data on the scope of the problem remain patchy. These figures
demonstrate the human consequences of one of the worlds most protracted
The externally displaced people pose a significant threat to regional peace
and stability as they challenge both the prevalent norms of non-intervention
and the ability of neighboring states to provide adequate health, education
and other necessary services to the refugees. There is also the need to recognize
the delicate ethnic balance of Southeast Asian states and the challenges faced
by Myanmars neighbors with an influx of displaced persons. A historical
example of such a challenge to the delicate ethnic balance of Southeast Asia
was seen during the Indo-chinese exodus. The exodus saw the displacement
of around three million people outside of their country of origin, with a
significant number of ethnic Chinese fleeing to neighboring states from 1959
until the stem of the flow was cut at the second conference on Indo-chinese
refugees in 1989 (Cutts, 2000).

Internal dynamics of Myanmar

As Myanmar is the largest refugee-producing state in the Southeast Asian

region, understanding the domestic dynamics is essential to address the root
causes. Those displaced who remain inside Myanmar had limited access to
relief assistance within Myanmar because the military regime imposed
restrictions on the movement of, and closely monitored, NGOs (TBBC,
2005, p. 60) up until the Cyclone Nargis relief effort began in mid-2008.
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Before Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar at the beginning of May 2008, the
military regime was increasingly suspicious of foreign aid workers and stepped
up regulation on access to IDPs and other populations of concern, such as
political prisoners. As a result of the increased restrictions placed on NGOs,
the International Committee of the Red Cross scaled down their activities in
2006. However, while there were restrictions placed upon NGOs, some
agencies managed to continue to access their targeted populations by building
upon their personal relationships with military officials. An example of this is
the UNHCRs western border effort, which started with the Rohingya
repatriation to Northern Rakhine State from Bangladesh and continues as an
integration mission. The UNHCRs involvement was the result of a 1993
Memorandum of Understanding involving that agency, the military regime
and the Bangladeshi government with funding from western donor nations.
Previous bilateral efforts in the late 1970s were unsuccessful and were met
with widespread international condemnation (Barnett 2000). This agreement
allowed the UNHCR access to the refugee population to determine the volun-
tary nature of their return. It also committed the Bangladeshi government not
to coerce the Rohingya into leaving against their will and allowed for the
UNHCR to motivate refugees to return (Abrar, 1995, p. 38). Since repatriation
took place, the UNHCR operation has focused on Rohingya integration. This
operation remains ad hoc and reliant on personal relationships. It is through
this informal channel that the UNHCR has created a political space for itself in
Myanmar. Nevertheless, its informal nature makes it reliant on individuals
within the regime, which can change without warning and therefore jeopardize
its operations.
Furthermore, this operations ad hoc nature and reliance on personal
relationships ensure that UNHCR activities are contained to a specific area
and population. This example demonstrates that there are three identifiable
constraints for an aid agency to gain access to a population of concern in
Myanmar. The first constraint is an agencys ability to persuade the gatekeeper
that it is the right agency for the job. In this case, the UNHCR was positioned
as a facilitator between the host and recipient states in the 1993 Memorandum
of Understanding. The previous bilateral efforts were no longer an option for
Bangladesh as it sought to avoid international criticism. The second constraint
was the availability of funds from donor governments. Without these funds the
UNHCR would not operate along the western border. The third constraint is
the maintenance of relations between the UNHCR and military officials. These
personal relationships between officials ensure that access to the population of
concern is guaranteed. Without the successful maintenance of these relation-
ships, access to the population of concern is uncertain.
However, the UNHCR experience along the eastern border illustrates that
the political space that the agency created on the western border is not
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transferable. This highlights the importance of the reliance on personal

relationships in the military regime, where the agencys political space is limited
to the brief of the military official(s). The UNHCRs experience along the
eastern border has not been as successful as its western border experience. With
the ongoing conflict and the 2004 military government reshuffle in Myanmar,
the UNHCR has limited access to the eastern border region from its Myanmar
office (UNHCR, 2007, p. 3). Before the 2004 military regime reshuffle,
the UNHCR and Khin Nyunt, the then Burmese prime minister, were well
advanced on a repatriation program. However, with the installation of a hard-
line government, these plans were frozen (TBBC, 2005, p. 60).
This section has illustrated the historical context in which the military regime
emerged, to highlight the system that has evolved and the challenges the people
face. The internal dynamics of the state show that there are significant
constraints on international actors becoming involved in providing humani-
tarian assistance. Through the example of the UNHCR experience along the
western border, three constraints emerge: gatekeeper acceptance; continued
funding; continuation of personal relationships between international actors
and military officials. If these constraints are met, then the international actors
are able to access the population of concern. However, this political space is
limited to a specific population of concern and it is unlikely that the political
space will be consolidated state-wide. The next section focuses on ASEANs
policy towards Myanmar and how this policy helps or hinders the
advancement of democracy and human rights issues in Myanmar.

The Role of ASEAN

ASEAN was established by the 1967 Bangkok Declaration by Malaysia,

Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand in response to their
perception of a growing communist threat from China and along the Indo-
chinese peninsula. The Bangkok Declaration set out the vision for ASEAN
which was further consolidated through the 1976 TAC. The fundamental
concern of the organization was to reassert individual sovereignty, mutual
protection from foreign influence and ensure that each member was equally
protected from another members influence. These original five member states
were joined by Brunei Darussalam in 1984; Vietnam in 1995; Laos and
Myanmar in 1997; and Cambodia in 1999. ASEAN is now seen as the
representative body of Southeast Asia (Acharya, 2001).
The admission of Myanmar into the association in 1997 was a significant
turning point. Since 1992, ASEAN has promoted constructive engagement9 as
the appropriate avenue to engage with the military junta in Myanmar. However,
from the beginning of constructive engagement to Myanmar membership in
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ASEAN, there were no significant advancements of democracy or human

rights issues (Khoo, 2004, p. 40). As a result of this policy failure, the
admission of Myanmar in the association was seen as accommodating the
regime. This failure to influence change with the domestic situation has
continued since Myanmars ASEAN membership. Indeed, the associations
position has become entrenched as a result of its established principles and
promotion of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states.
However, recent outspoken criticism of the military regime in Myanmar
by fellow ASEAN members signals current frustration among the more
progressive and democratic ASEAN members and, equally, illustrates the
limitations of constructive engagement. The more progressive ASEAN
members10 are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, who were
also many of its founding members. In July 2006, Syed Hamid Albar, the
Malaysian foreign minister accused the military junta in Myanmar of holding
ASEAN hostage by its refusal to cooperate with its fellow ASEAN members
and its lack of progress on issues of concern, namely, human rights and
democracy (Kent, 2006). When considering ASEAN policy towards Myanmar,
the TAC has not focused on another central theme of the Treaty, found in
Articles 6, 9, 11 and 12, which focus on peace and security in the region
(ASEAN, 1976).
The current ASEAN policy of constructive engagement in its present form
has not produced long-term results and serves to offer lip-service to the EU
and other western countries with which it interacts, particularly through the
Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and EU-ASEAN dialogue. The military regime
directs a planned economy ensuring Myanmar integration into the ASEAN
market remains in their hands (Than and Thein, 2007). Even if ASEAN were
to take a more proactive role on the domestic situation in Myanmar, it is far
from certain that it would have any influence, given the regimes hold on
the economy and general reluctance to engage outsiders on internal issues.
This observation demonstrates the largely superficial nature of constructive
engagement on long-term regime change in Myanmar. However, recent
ASEAN success illustrates that constructive engagement has a limited role to
play in short-term policy goals.
In the wake of the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis, the military regime was faced
with a complex humanitarian emergency. Initially the regime was reluctant to
grant access to international organizations and other bodies. However,
ASEAN was able to facilitate greater access for international humanitarian
agencies to those affected by the natural disaster through the Tripartite Core
Group (TCG), an ASEAN-led mechanism. The TCG was formed after the
May 2008 special ASEAN meeting in Singapore and the UN-ASEAN pledging
conference in Yangon to facilitate trust, confidence and cooperation between
Myanmar and the international community. The TCG offered a mechanism
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through which visas were quickly processed for UN officials and foreign
aid workers; it assisted the entry and deployment of WFP helicopters;
and facilitated the collection of data from affected areas (
Although the debate over the successes and failures of constructive
engagement continues, it is evident from the Cyclone Nargis response that
ASEAN has provided essential mediation between the regime and the
international community. The response has shown the international commu-
nity that in a humanitarian emergency, ASEAN is able to be an effective
mechanism. This success is limited to short-term emergency action as it is a new
mechanism established only recently.

The ECP towards Myanmar: Sanctions and Humanitarian Assistance

This section focuses on the ECP on Myanmar, how the position evolved
and what prospects this policy position holds for advancing the causes of
democracy and human rights in Myanmar. With Myanmar being one of the
worlds most protracted refugee producing states, it is difficult to evaluate the
ECP favorably. The aim of the ECP is to force the hand of the regime towards
implementing democracy and recognizing human rights, neither of which exist
in Myanmar today. Although the ECP has a strict sanctions policy towards the
military regime, humanitarian assistance remains the one area where European
funding can be channeled. These sanctions, with the exception of humanitarian
assistance, were the result of the dismissal of the 1990 election results by the
military regime. The ECP has been in existence since 1996 and has evolved in
an attempt to combat the military regimes inaction to either recognize the 1990
election results or advance democracy and human rights in Myanmar.
Currently the sanctions cover six main policy areas: an arms embargo; a ban
on non-humanitarian aid; an end to GSP trade privileges; a visa ban for senior
regime officials and their families; a freezing of assets; and a limited investment
ban (ECP, 2007).
The limitations of the ECP sanctions have framed the debate within the EU
over how to approach the issues of democracy and human rights in Myanmar.
The most notable limitation is the investment ban which has many loopholes
allowing continued European investment.11 The ECP was strengthened in
2007 and extended the sanctions to include the logging, mining and gemstone
industries (EU, 2008). This was a significant step forward in isolating the
military regime from the European market as these are significant industries in
Myanmar. In contrast, the United States has a more rigorous investment ban
in place to prevent more wide-ranging instances of investment in Myanmar,
which came into force as the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. This
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Act banned the importation of all Burmese goods (Rarick, 2006). However,
both parties advocate a sovereignty with responsibility approach,12 which
means at the very least ensuring a certain level of protection for and providing
the basic needs of the people (Deng, 1996). At present the perception is that
targeted sanctions have brought about the best policy option thus far and both
the EU and United States hope to convince Asian nations to follow suit or at
least cooperate significantly more than at present. Although there is significant
debate within the EU over Myanmar, the place of sanctions in some form is
part and parcel of EU foreign policy towards undemocratic and repressive
However, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis there have been far more significant
developments in the realm of humanitarian assistance, the one area in which
the EU engages in Myanmar under military rule. The initial response of the
military regime in Myanmar was to block and delay international aid while
doing little itself to alleviate the suffering of those directly affected by the
cyclone (Abramowitz and Pickering, 2008). However, in the wake of ASEAN
diplomacy, the military regime agreed to establish the TCG, which promotes
international cooperation and understanding between the military regime
and international actors wanting to offer humanitarian assistance (www The ECP towards the military regime has the
potential to achieve results but only as part of a broad set of measures
including sanctions but also supporting the humanitarian assistance effort
fully. As a result of Cyclone Nargis, the exclusion of humanitarian assistance in
the ECP highlights a way that the EU can assist those affected by the Cyclone
and have also suffered the longer term policies of the military government.
There continues to be two different approaches to dealing with Myanmar
from the perspectives of ASEAN and the EU, yet the organizations have found
common ground to cooperate and roles to match or align their policies in
their humanitarian response to Cyclone Nargis. It is important to remember
the UNHCR experience with the military regime regarding access to the
population of concern on the one hand, and the non-transferable social capital
of personal relationships on the other. The next section compares and contrasts
the successes and failures of constructive engagement and the ECP towards
Myanmar and offers some prospects for increased interaction over the issues
of democracy and human rights in Myanmar.

Dialogue between Constructive Engagement and the ECP

In the first instance, the origins and challenges of both ASEAN and the EU
policies towards Myanmar reflect their domestic constituencies as much as they
reflect common ground between the two. This understanding begins to map
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out an approach on how the two organizations best interact over the issues of
democracy and human rights in Myanmar and Southeast Asia more generally.
ASEAN member states remain unlikely to agree to impose a robust ASEAN-
wide policy similar to the ECP on Myanmar because the consensus-building
policy-making process (Kraft, 2000) prevents the organization from doing so.
As a result, the organizations effectiveness is questioned over whether it can
keep its members in line with international expectations and international law.
ASEAN continues to be limited in the realm of human rights promotion as a
result of many of its member states not having credible human rights records
(Freedom House, 2008). It is also evidenced by the weak mandate the ASEAN
Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights adopted in October 2009 at
Cha-am Hua Hin, Thailand. Although the common ground between ASEAN
and the EU will undoubtedly show ways in which the two organizations can
work better together, this common ground may prove more fruitful for areas
other than human rights. The process through which ASEAN and the EU can
work together on other areas would go some way to bridge the current cultural
gap that exists (Pereira, 2005).
However, the EUs lobbying of ASEAN to follow its lead on economic
sanctions is unlikely to succeed. Indeed, other approaches would be required to
further the policy goals of democracy and human rights. Given that ASEAN as
an organization continues to have limited prospects of changing significantly, it
is unlikely to change course anytime soon on the issue of economic sanctions.
This constraint is coupled with the historical independence of foreign policy-
making by the military regime in Myanmar. As Jurgen Haacke (2006) argues:

Myanmars foreign policy stands in continuity with the past in that the
State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) emphasizes the impor-
tance of an independent and active foreign policy. This implies creating
and maintaining as much maneuverability in its foreign relations with
neighboring powers as possible, while resisting threats to its sovereignty.

With the historical precedent of an independent foreign policy, it is unreasonable

to assume that ASEAN alone will be able to hold such sway. Myanmar reacts
to perceived undue interference by distancing itself from ASEAN to varying
degrees and rebalances its relations with its other neighbors, China and
India. Both of these neighbors currently focus on trade issues with the regime
such as the building of the Trans-Asian highway from Delhi to Beijing (Garver,
2006) as well as other energy interests. Both of these will generate income
for the regime and ensure that they are not reliant on organizations and
states that advocate regime change in Myanmar. If ASEAN is the focus then it
would have to come alongside the mutual understanding of both China and
India to demonstrate greater success in the longer term. However, ASEAN has
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taken the lead alongside the UN and Myanmar in producing a body, the
TCG, to act as a facilitator between international agencies, donor nations
and the military regime ( Without their co-
operation the effect of ASEAN and EU policy towards Myanmar will be
When considering the different levels of interaction with Myanmar that
exist, it is difficult to ignore the role of NGOs. There are a wealth of
experienced NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) that work along the
border and inside with Myanmar and with the wider displaced population
further a field in countries such as Australia, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand,
Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. In most foreign policy-
making, the framing of a policy debate is conducted within the parameters of
political and diplomatic limitations such as periodic democratic elections and
international agreements. In this sense the constructive engagement policy
reflects a balance between ASEAN internal dynamics and its international
commitments. The vast majority of ASEAN members are not classified as
established democracies with civil liberties (Freedom House, 2008), which
generally reflects ASEAN internal dynamics. However, there are emerging civil
societies and democratic institutions in its member states. An example of an
ASEAN wide grouping on the issues of democracy and human rights in
Myanmar is the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus.
The Caucus was established in 2004, and, alongside other actors, it succes-
sfully campaigned for ASEAN not to allow Myanmar to chair the ASEAN
meetings in 2006. It consists of legislators from Cambodia, Indonesia,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand who have called for the
unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees
( However, the influence of such groupings on ASEAN,
both based within state institutions and the wider civil society is significantly
limited. At the end of 2007, there were 58 NGOs affiliated to ASEAN, mostly
covering businesses, sports and the professions. As of this date, there were
five social policy-oriented NGOs affiliated to ASEAN including a youth
organization, a federation of womens organizations, a community education
NGO, a mental health and a drug prevention organization (
6070_1.htm). This contrasts to some 2600 special interest groups in Brussels,
with NGOs14 accounting for 11 per cent of these (Lee, 2006); a similar
percentage to ASEAN-affiliated social policy-oriented groups (circa 9 per
cent). From this affiliation list, there is little evidence that ASEAN focuses on
formally involving civil society in decision-making given the small total
number of affiliates. As a result of these findings, ASEAN decision-making is
still rooted in the top echelons of government or, if civil society is able to
influence decision-making, then it is through informal channels such as
personal relationships, which are difficult to evaluate.
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Civil society organizations will begin to bridge the cultural gap that exists
between ASEAN and the EU on what the organizations are able and willing to
achieve in response to human rights issues in Myanmar. This exercise has also
highlighted the challenges that both organizations share in implementing
region-wide policies. One of the most notable observations is the inability to
assess the motivations and limitations of ASEAN. Although it is Southeast
Asias most comprehensive organization in the same way that the EU is
Europes, Southeast Asian regionalism does not follow the same path.


ASEANs stance towards Myanmar has not delivered any significant

results in terms of regime change, while the ECP on Myanmar has also had
little concrete effect on the regimes behavior. The ECP has not produced
any significant progress because of internal reluctance to meet word with
deed coupled with varying degrees of international cooperation. The ECP
demonstrates the EUs soft power limitations but offers insight into the
internal politics of the EU and the domestic politics of its member states. The
EU sets a gold standard on many other world-wide human rights issues
and tries to encourage similar behavior from other states in the international
community. However, while this approach works in other areas, its soft power
has not yet led to the adoption of a United Nations Security Council
Resolution on Myanmar. Indeed, while the United States has offered a robust
policy, in advance of the EU, other significant actors in Southeast Asia have
not. The failure of the EU and United States to achieve a multilateral effort
towards Myanmar ultimately undermines the power of their policies and their
impact on regime change. However, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis there have
been significant developments such as the TCG.
Although the TCG mechanism to promote cooperation and understanding
in the wake of Cyclone Nargis continues to produce results, it is important to
recall previous experiences of other international agencies. This article used the
UNHCR operations on the western border in Myanmar as an example, which
suggests that while greater access will be gained to those affected by Cyclone
Nargis there are three constraints on this access continuing. These constraints
are the continuance of the ASEAN-UN mechanism to be the gatekeeper or
facilitator; continued funding by donor states; and the maintenance of good
personal relationships between agency and military officials.
On one level, ASEAN, the EU and the wider international community need
to be involved to pressure the military regime in Pyinmana to make progress
on democracy and human rights issues. At this level the EU and ASEAN
can provide a more coordinated policy towards encouraging the participation
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Positions of responsibility

of other neighboring states such as India to recognize and develop suitable

policy towards the regime. On the other level, the EU needs to develop policies
that will foster greater international cooperation towards Myanmar and
recognize the limitations and the incremental nature of ASEANs policy-
making process. The most plausible avenue at present is through the ongoing
development of the TCG, to continue its work with Myanmar.

About the Author

Alistair D.B. Cook is a MacArthur Post-Doctoral Fellow at the RSIS Centre

for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He also holds an
honorary fellowship in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the
University of Melbourne, Australia. He has edited a book, Culture, Religion
and Identity in Southeast Asia (2007), Cambridge Scholars Press: Newcastle,
UK and was the Editor-in-Chief of the Melbourne Journal of Politics in 2007.


1 The 2007 United States Congressional Resolution 56 on Myanmar encourages ASEAN to

take action to ensure a democratic transition and respect for human rights takes place in
Myanmar. The resolution would also welcome ASEAN to entertain disciplinary measures
against Myanmar, including suspension from the organization. The resolution recognizes the
statements by foreign ministers of ASEAN member states that the Myanmar issue has had a
serious impact on the reputation and credibility of the organisation.
2 An example of a more critical ASEAN member state, in 2006 the Malaysian foreign minister
accused the Myanmar military junta of holding ASEAN hostage and damaging its relations
with the rest of the world by refusing to reform in a speech to the Inter-ASEAN parliamentary
Myanmar caucus ( A less critical stance
has been held by the four newest members Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam which see the situation
as reflective of themselves ( In other
words, the newest members are reluctant to single out Myanmar for fear that their domestic
affairs will also become the subject of regional scrutiny.
3 Soft power as a concept was coined by Joseph Nye in the 1980s. Soft power is the ability to
attract and persuade. It arises out of the attractiveness of a countrys, or in this case, a regional
organizations culture, political ideals and policies (Nye, 2005).
4 The frontier lands refer to the border states of modern Myanmar and include the Chin,
Kachin, Karenni and Shan ethnic nationalities.
5 The 8/8/88 Uprising, was a national pro-democracy march in Burma. This revolution saw the
emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as the pro-democracy figurehead around the world. The
revolution was put down by the military junta in a bloody attack on peaceful protesters.
6 The Rohingya live in Arakan state, sharing a border with Bangladesh and are descendants of
foreign traders and soldiers, mostly Arab, Mongolian, Turkish, Portuguese and Bengali, mixing
with different native tribes who converted to Islam in the fifteenth century when it was part of

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Bengal (Jonassohn and Bjornson, 1999). The Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants and
denied basic citizenship rights by the military junta. The religious dimension has been exploited
by the military junta to promote a feeling of otherness. This generates suspicion of the
Rohingyas presence as a non-Burman and foreign influence on Burma.
7 For a detail investigation into refugees experiences under the military, see KWO (2004).
8 For an individual study on internal displacement in Myanmar, see Bosson (2007).
9 Constructive engagement is a conceptualization of ASEANs collective diplomatic approach to
Myanmar, which developed out of the Thai policy of accommodation towards Yangon. It is a
policy alternative to strategies of condemnation and confrontation (Haacke, 2003).
10 According to Freedom House, a non-partisan institution that evaluates countries worldwide on
their levels of political rights and civil liberties, Indonesia is the only ASEAN member classified
as Free; while Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore are classified as Partly Free;
the remaining members are classified as Not Free (Freedom House, 2008). As a result I refer to
these members as the more progressive ASEAN members because of their shift towards
democracy over the other members stagnant positions as not free.
11 For a more detailed analysis of the limited investment ban, please see the Burma Campaign
12 The Sovereignty with Responsibility approach was coined by Francis Deng in the mid-1990s
and is widely cited in Deng et al (1996).
13 Some EU member states advocate lessening the current levels of sanctions. These are Austria,
France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. A handful of other EU member states advocate
increasing the sanctions. These are Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and the
United Kingdom (Burma Campaign UK, 2006).
14 Lee (2006) refers to groups representing industry and NGOs, so one can assume that his
definition of NGO is similar to mine in that they are social policy-oriented.


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